A friend posted a cartoon on Facebook recently: outcome of political arguments on Facebook.
The pie chart was drowning in red ink – “No one changes anything, and everyone’s pissed” was the unanimous choice.
Two other choices – “You change your mind” and “They change their mind” – didn’t get a look in. A big fat zero on both counts.
Jokes aside, a more rigorous study conducted by Pew Research Centre last year found the cartoon wasn’t too far off the mark – just 14 per cent of adults surveyed said they had changed their views about a political or social issue in the past year because of something they read or saw on social media.
With social media destined to play an unprecedented role in the looming Federal election, one has to wonder what the point will be using the platform to sway voters’ opinions.
Given 14 per cent of voters switching their political allegiances could actually affect an election dramatically, perhaps that’s not a bad result. Though it’s not unreasonable to question the accuracy of that 14 per cent figure, given interviewee bias may have played a role. Who wants to admit to being narrow-minded; fixed in their ways and not open to persuasion?
Well if years of research into opinion shaping, pre-dating social media, is any guide, many of us are just that - and social media is only amplifying things.
It is well-established that most people seek out information that aligns with pre-existing beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias – a term coined by British psychiatrist Peter Wason in the 1960s.
It’s a tendency to not only seek out information affirming our beliefs – conservative voters may watch Andrew Bolt on Sky News; so-called progressives will read the Guardian online – but also to interpret and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or a hypothesis.
‘Summer was always hot when I were a lad, therefore climate change isn’t happening.’ - apologies to Monty Python.
On social media confirmation bias manifests as people tending to follow others with similar views to their own – or at least avoiding those whose attitudes diametrically opposed to their own – and these would include clicking on advertisements likely to present information contrary to their views.
As any time spent on Twitter reveals, most tweet threads or conversations are generally people in passionate agreement with each other. Any contrary view is shouted down, with the poor soul daring to swim against the tide blocked by those whose beliefs have been attacked.
Or to use the current term du jour they are ‘cancelled’.
"If you're black and still support Donald Trump, you are forever cancelled" -@alejandro_dn98
As University of Arkansas student Thomas Maunakea recently wrote:
“The only next logical step from someone being deemed ‘cancelled’ by a group is for them to actually receive physical or mental harm from that same group. ‘Cancelling’ someone is akin to putting them on a faux hit-list.”
People therefore avoid engaging directly with people who hold a contrary view, even if politely trying to present an alternative view.
Inevitably, people are reading posts from users who have similar attitudes and values.
US Marketing expert, Heather Satterfield, argues social media may reinforce people’s opinions and make it more difficult for them to entertain alternative points of view.
“In politics, it can help to make people more opinionated and less tolerant of others,” Satterfield says.
Occasionally, a thread can be a genuine conversation with counter views expressed and politely discussed and dismissed. But these are rare gems in the otherwise ugly street warfare of social media.
I often receive sponsored tweets from political parties, probably because I follow many politicians and political journalists.
The comments under such ads are full of vitriol from people triggered by what they read and angry that Twitter would dare to poison their otherwise politically pure feed.
In an academic paper published in 2016, Walter Quattrociocchi, Antonio Scala and Cass Sunstein found evidence that social media users are drawn to information that strengthens their opinions and reject information that undermines them.
Samidh Chakrabarti, Product Manager, Civic Engagement at Facebook argues “that makes bursting these bubbles hard because it requires pushing against deeply ingrained human instincts”.
“Research shows that some obvious ideas — like showing people an article from an opposing perspective — could actually make us dig in even more.”
So where does that leave social media as a tool to change people’s voting intentions.
Yes, there are thousands of undecided voters out there ready to be persuaded.
A paid Facebook or Twitter post is one way to communicate with them, especially amongst audiences who have abandoned traditional advertising channels: commercial television, radio, newspapers.
However, unlike social media, a television advertisement isn’t immediately followed by hundreds of vitriolic tweeters triggered by a perceived malediction, assembled in your loungeroom rubbishing the political message.
On social media platforms, the effectiveness of your message can be undermined by the response it generates.
Nevertheless, as the last US Presidential election demonstrated, political parties are willing to invest vast sums in micro-targeting voters they think could be receptive to their social media messages.
Crafted carefully – or to use the technical term, framed – to appeal to existing prejudices, these targeted advertisements do work.
People use frames to locate, perceive, identify, and label information. Social psychologist Erving Goffman and sociologist William A. Gamson describe frames as devices that help individuals organize their experiences, tools they use to make meaning of events.
However, in a country where voting is compulsory (Australia), it’s questionable whether they are as effective as in countries where heading to the polling booth is voluntary (The US and the UK). In the latter, they can target people who agree with the message, with the aim of motivating them to vote.
In the United States studies have found different political parties use different frames around hot-button issues.
For instance, Republicans frame abortion discussions around the baby or child and specific abortion procedures by using words such as ‘baby’ and ‘procedure,’ while Democrats frame the same issue around women and choice by using words such as ‘women’ and ‘right’.
But if, as many argue, social media is polarising political debate, the effectiveness of social media as persuasive tool with voters may be diminishing.
As political and social psychologists Lee De-Wit, Cameron Brick and Sander Van Der Linden argued recently “social media, it seems, amp up moral and emotional messages while organising people into digital communities based on tribal conflicts”.
And alarmingly, research shows that even if people are exposed to contrary views on Twitter, they either retain their existing opinions or their views harden.
A team of sociologists and political scientists at Duke University in North Carolina last year conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views.
“Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant,” the study’s authors reported.
As with much around social media, more research is required, and ideas tested before we truly understand how best to use the platform as a tool for political persuasion.
Still, with an increasing number of swinging voters in Australia, perhaps people do wish to be persuaded to vote one way or the other and social media is their primary source of information.
The Shell Issue 13
1. Co-CEO address, Benjamin Haslem
2. How Shooters, Fishers and Farmers tapped a well of resentment to reshape the political landscape, Alexandra Mayhew Hills
3. The rise of activist lobby groups in Australian politics, Larissa Jaffé
4. Social media and the art of political persuasion: No one changes anything, and everyone’s pi__ed, Benjamin Haslem
5. 2020 US Democrats: The New Guard, Isabelle Walker
6. Social media influencers and Federal politicians don blue hearts to fight youth suicide, Stav Pisk
7. New trends in banking? Answering brick bats with bouquets, Kathy Lindsay
8. Strong Australia-China relations important for maintaining trade flow torrent, David Croasdale & Maggie Chan
9. IPREX Highlights